Almost a century has passed since J O Francis’ intense domestic drama was first seen yet its central theme of a family ripped apart by social, political, cultural and economic change rings true to us down the generations.
Add to this acting of quite remarkable passion and utter conviction in this rehearsed reading and this offering from the On the Edge, State of the Nation season, had the audience literally on the edge of their seats.
The story is of a mining family in the Rhondda just before the First World War, when coal was king but the mining communities were its serfs. But change is in the air with the rash of strikes, the burgeoning Labour movement, and political rather than pulpit oration offering salvation.
On the family scene we have a hard working God fearing father John Price, played by Gwyn Vaughan-Jones with a wonderful combination of strength and vulnerability. He has made sacrifices throughout his life so his sons can have the education and chances he never had. His sole ambition is to have one of his sons become the minister – the accolade of success. His wife is played by Anwen Williams and a more moving and exhausting performance I have rarely seen. She has a simpler ambition, to have her family around her.
But these are changing times. One son Gwilym played as a gentle yet deeply observant child by Leon Davies has consumption and is to live with a relation in Australia. Another son John Henry, sympathetically played by a Richard Shackley, turns his back on the ministry and chooses, shame of it, the stage. The third son Lewis, played with fire in soul by Gareth John Bale, chooses firebrand politics as his religion. John Price has the preacher son he always wanted but with socialism rather than Christianity his message.
The lodger Sam Thatcher (ironically appropriate surname for a play about struggling mining communities) is played by Lee Mengo as the outsider, a disabled rover from Canning Town whose mantra is to go with the flow.
Set against a montage of actual industrial disputes including confrontations with strike-breaking soldiers, the plot follows the break up of the family as the father cannot understand his children’s values in the changing society. One by one they depart leaving their mother a broken woman.
Yes, the symbolism of the characters seems a little heavy handed and obvious to us today but remember there are still plays and musicals even still being written that follow what over the following century has become a hackneyed and clichéd dramatic convention in Welsh drama.
While Caradoc Evans’ Taffy was not quite the Jerry Springer: The Opera of its day, performances of this darkly comic look at religion in Welsh village life roused similar levels of outrage in 1920s London.
The London Welsh community was apparently so incensed by the onslaught on the hypocrisies of religious elders in their West Wales capel that rioting broke out when the show was revived in 1925. Police had to be called and the opening night abandoned.
There is no record of the play being performed in Wales and such was the ferocity of the response to its content – ministers are said to have burned Evans’ works – even printed copies are hard to find.
And so this rehearsed reading as part of the On the Edge: State of the Nation season was indeed not only a rare treat but something of a historic event in the annals of Welsh literature.
While no rowdy Bible-waving crowds greeted this satirical take on Welsh Nonconformity, a healthily large audience did squeeze into Chapter to hear a cast of impressive pedigree, directed by Steve Fisher, juggle with the demands of the piece. Such is Evans’ writing style including a celebration of the idiosyncratic syntax of the Anglo-Welsh language; this was no mean feat. The language and dialogue is deliciously rich and distinctive, melodious and archaic, which is, of course, in keeping with a community obsessed with the preaching skills of its ministers.
The story itself rattles along at a cracking pace which beggars the question of how effective a staged performance would actually be, with the inherent risk of much of the comedy potentially sinking into farce.
The village elders, the Big Heads, have to choose a new minister. Three of the four, a storekeeper Rhys, undertaker Essec and stonemason Josi are clearly more interested in the possibility of building a new capel and benefiting financially.
Each of these wittily drawn characters are realised skillfully by Jams Thomas, Brendan Charleston and William Thomas.
These three “Big Heads” vote for a young new minister, Spurgeon Evans. The fourth, a local farmer, Twmi, played by Huw Garmon, breaks away from the other Big Heads. Twmi employs the elderly minister, Ben Watkins, to preach in his own breakaway capel, the more basic Capel Zinc. Played by Owen Garmon, three-time widowed Ben Watkins, carries a tape measure, always on the look out for wife four who will fit into his dead wives’ clothes.
Set against this, we have two of the elders’ daughters, Ester and Marged, who both at first have an eye for the young new minister.
A true daughter of the village, however, played by Ri Richards, Ester is more interested in the trappings of being the minister’s wife, particularly with a new capel for the village. In contrast, Marged, played by Jessica Sandry, is determined to reveal the man beneath.
Add to the shenanigans the appearance of Captain Shacob hot on the trail of Ben Watkins for leaving his own Capel Morfa before preaching enough of his famous “soul tickler” sermons to bring in enough collection cash to pay for work on that new building. Captain Shacob is also vividly brought to life by Brendan Charleston.
The ridiculous situations our comic crew find themselves in become more and more extreme, revealing layer upon layer of their own greed, ignorance and hypocrisy.
The love story of Marged and Spurgeon Evans, played by Huw Davies, is used as the vehicle to untangle the interwoven disputes and reconcile the villagers through revealing their hypocrisies but also finding compromise. Spurgeon turns his back on the ministry and symbolically donates his unpreached sermons to Ben Watkins, who, it is revealed relied on his wives to write his fiery texts.
Our characters are indeed reconciled but the underlying message is that nothing has really changed. The closing moments is storekeeper Rhys encouraging his chickens to eat the rice he has sold the villagers at an extortionate price for Marged and Captain Shacob’s wedding.
While our sensibilities now find such characters and institutions fair game, reactions to other plays raising questions about other religions – or at least manifestations of religion – show passions can still be deeply stirred by drama.
Transpose the satire from religion to other aspects of contemporary Welsh life, notably devolved politics and the role of the language within the new Welsh Establishment, and Taffy rings so true.